In politically engaged circles, critique of ideas or actions is often perceived as rejection or attack. How can it be understood as an invitation for growth and learning, for change instead? Rather than dismissing an idea, criticality can add nuance, complexity, and space for re-consideration. Of course, some ideas that perpetuate violence need to be dismissed, but the constant trying to be better, more morally conscious, more critical, often leads to division and a climate of policing. In the book Joyful Militancy, carla bergman and Nick Montgomery describe this phenomenon as rigid radicalism, and propose to centre the joy of doing things together, of becoming capable together instead.1 How can critique open up possibilities, allow us to stay in movement, to not settle with the ‘right answers’?

Irit Rogoff proposes a shift from “criticism to critique to criticality - from finding fault, to examining the underlying assumptions that might allow something to appear as a convincing logic, to operating from an uncertain ground which [...] wants to inhabit culture in a relation other than one of critical analysis; other than one of illuminating flaws, locating elisions, allocating blames.”2 The criticality Rogoff describes is one that is embedded in the present, in experience, an active process ,all while making use of the tools provided by critique.

By adding the term ‘affirmative’, I want to emphasise a creative and productive quality. Rosi Braidotti questions the idea that posits critical oppositional consciousness as necessarily negative. Through Hegelian dialectics that centralise negation as a productive force, we came to equate negativity with critique. Instead, she proposes to see critique as affirmation, that, drawing on Gilles Deleuze “engenders powerful modes of becoming”. Central in this case is our ability to enter into relations with (not necessarily human) others, to activate new forces and possibilities in the way we think, feel, and relate to each other. To actively work towards alternatives, in the present, but also towards sustainable futures. “Affirmative ethics puts the motion back into e-motion, and the active into activism, introducing movement, process, becoming.”3

While Adorno understands affirmativity as a lack of criticality, as unreflected, conformist pursuit of pleasure4, I want to emphasise Audre Lorde’s writing on the Erotic, on the sensorial, embodied experience that in Western thinking is mostly subdued to detached intellectual analysis. She describes the Erotic as a creative force, a being physically present, saying yes to life, as “physical, emotional, and psychic expressions of what is deepest and strongest and richest within each of us”. Oppression suppresses this source of energy, deriving the oppressed of the power necessary for real and profound change.5

To me affirmative criticality is about coming up with concrete, embodied perspectives for action and change, it is aimed at generating feelings of (collective) joy and agency. While it is important to recognize the legitimacy of feelings of anger and frustration that result from struggling against unjust systems and institutions, there is a huge need for energy and hope.

1 bergman, carla, and Nick Montgomery. Joyful Militancy: Building Thriving Resistance in Toxic Times. AK Press, 2017.
2 Rogoff, Irit. “From Criticism to Critique to Criticality.” Transversal texts, 2003, https://transversal.at/pdf/journal-text/1364/. Accessed 22 May 2022.
3 Braidotti, Rosi. “On Putting the Active Back into Activism.” New Formations: A Journal of Culture/Theory/Politics, Special Issue: ‘Deleuzian Politics?’, no. 68, 2009, pp.42-57. Accessed via https://rosibraidotti.com/publications/on-putting-the-active-back-into-activism/ on 22 May 2022.
4 Frank, Patrick. “Affirmative Critique.” On Curating, 2009, https://on-curating.org/issue-44-reader/affirmative-critique.html#.YopUenVBw2z . Accessed 22 May 2022.
5 Lorde, Audre. “Uses of the Erotic.” When I dare to be powerful: Women so empowered are dangerous, Penguin Books, 2020.